Job Support Scheme and Workplace Adjustments for Mental Health in COVID-19

Parliamentary Speech, Committee of Supply Debate, Fortitude Budget, 5 Jun 2020

Workplace Adjustments for Mental Health

Businesses have been hard-hit by COVID-19. Not referenced in the Fortitude Budget is the impact of the pandemic on the mental well-being of employees. I have mentioned earlier that in a survey of business leaders and HR professionals, nearly one in two Singaporeans has had their mental health adversely affected by COVID-19.

A recent survey also found that employees without managers attuned to their well-being are 61% more likely to say they have been less productive. Hence, establishing workplace adjustments for mental health must be an urgent priority for business and overall economic recovery. The inter-agency advisory for employers to support employee well-being, which Senior Minister of State Amy Khor alluded to earlier, is a step in the right direction.

Protecting jobs is as important as protecting employability, which includes mental well-being. Can the Ministry integrate the inter-agency advisory into the Job Support Scheme (JSS) such that beneficiary employers must demonstrate effort to introduce workplace adjustments to support their employees? I propose that businesses should adopt Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), mental health insurance coverage for employees and/or other well-being programmes to qualify for JSS payouts in July and October.

Also, will the Ministry consider encouraging these progressive well-being practices with further incentives? I propose that the Ministry expands the scope of the Enhanced Work-Life Grant beyond flexible working arrangements (FWAs), for funding EAPs and/or other well-being programmes.

Jobs Support Scheme Mitigating Failure of Trickle-down Economics

The intention behind the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) to protect jobs and salary is welcome. However, abuse has been ongoing. MOM has received complaints about companies taking JSS monies and not using them to support their employees. It appears that workers have been threatened with dismissal if they complain about their employer’s errant behaviour. IRAS announced on 3 June 2020 that employers who abuse the JSS may be charged under the Penal Code and face imprisonment and a fine. I applaud this strong stand against abuse of the scheme. However, I also note that IRAS continues to encourage individuals to report malpractices and abuses of JSS. Despite IRAS’ promise that whistle-blowers’ identities will be kept strictly confidential, I foresee many cases in which this will pose little obstacles to the employer discovering the identity of the whistle-blower. Some complaints may never make it to the authorities because the employees do not know of the avenues for complaint or are afraid of souring their relationships with their employers. This is particularly true for elderly or lower income employees who will be most affected by the loss of their jobs and are consequently more vulnerable to exploitation.

To empower employees to make complaints against errant employers and protect the most vulnerable in our workforce, will the Government consider a strong whistle-blowing protection law similar to the protected disclosures regime in the UK’s employment Rights Act 1996 that is adequately communicated to all workers so that they are aware of the channels and feel safe exercising their right to whistle-blow. Further, instead of relying on goodwill, should there be a mechanism to make companies that are unaffected by or even profiting from the crisis return their JSS payouts?

Worker Classification and Income Support by NMP Walter Theseira

Sir, many Singaporean workers who have lost income due to COVID-19 have benefited from the Government’s income support schemes. These help schemes are differentiated between employees, who are eligible for the COVID-19 Support Grant, and the self-employed, who are eligible for the Self-employed Person Income Relief Scheme (SIRS).

I believe the Government has sought to address the different needs of each group in designing these schemes. However, the maximum cash assistance quantum at $9,000 is higher for the SIRS than for the Support Grant at $2,400. Inclusion in SIRS is also automatic for qualifying Singaporeans, whereas the Support Grant must be applied for.

This difference in benefits has caused some concern among workers who believe that their employment classification — as an employee or as a self-employed person — does not accurately reflect how they work, their control over their income, and their COVID-19 income risks. There are also workers who are not sure which group they belong to.

I will give two examples. Our Universities engage adjunct instructors to teach. They are paid on a piece rate per course. This was previously considered self-employment. The Universities were informed this treatment was incorrect. Therefore, the Universities switched to using contracts of service, which made them employees. But the adjuncts are actually still paid on a per-course basis. Nothing has changed about their work. They still lack the income security of full-time or even part-time employees, although they now do get CPF contributions.

Another example is that of workers who are unsure of their status. I was told that a hair stylist needed to apply for a COVID-19 income support grant. Is the hair stylist an employee or self-employed? It turns out that this person operates under a reverse commission model. The stylist works in a hair salon, she pays the salon owner a percentage of the revenue she brings in. This sounds like self-employment. But then, the salon owner may believe that the stylist works for them and may impose conditions on how and when they work. These cases often have no formal contract or they have a contract which is poorly drafted. An appeal was made demonstrating self-employment and I believe the stylist got their SIRS payment. But the point is that these work arrangements are not always easy to classify sometimes.

Sir, a worker who faces income risks due to COVID-19 needs help, regardless of how they are classified. Can we do more to ensure that help is calibrated to the workers’ actual income risks and income level, rather than their classification status? For example, if a part-time or contract employee faces substantial income risks, because they are hired on a case-by-case basis, could they be considered for SIRS benefits instead? We should also review the legal status of different work arrangements. Other countries are exploring an intermediate classification between employment and self-employment for gig-economy workers and those whose work is under the partial control of another. So, really, to cope with the severe shocks induced by COVID-19, we should aim for benefits tailored to income risks, rather than tailored to the classification of the worker.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Manpower (Ms Low Yen Ling): Mr Chairman, as we go through these challenging times, the Government is committed to protecting livelihoods and sustaining businesses. The support provided through the Unity, Resilience, Solidarity and Fortitude Budgets is targeted to help keep businesses viable and workers employed, so that they can tide over this crisis and recover quickly as the economy restarts.

MOM, with the support of the four Budgets, seeks to achieve this in three ways, namely: one, ensuring fair support for all workers — both for the employees and self-employed persons (SEPs); two, championing fair employment practices; and three, promoting mental well-being in our workplaces.

Firstly, ensuring fair support for all workers. The Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) has cushioned the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the labour market by helping employers to hold on to their employees and continue paying their salaries, even during the Circuit Breaker period.

We introduced the SEP Income Relief Scheme (SIRS) to help Singaporean SEPs with less means and family support tide over this difficult period. Although SIRS is means-tested, the Government has taken into consideration that these are unprecedented times. For comparison, usually, about 50,000 SEPs receive Workfare each year. In other words, they are assessed to be more needy. SIRS has now benefited over 120,000 SEPs — more than double the usual number of Workfare recipients.

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We understand that many SEPs may have seen their incomes fall. Nonetheless, the income criterion serves as a proxy for their ability to save and, therefore, the likelihood of their ability to tide through periods of less earnings.

It should also be noted that about 80% of the personal income taxpayers earn incomes below the SIRS criterion of $100,000 or about $9,000 a month. In other words, one would have to be in the top 20% taxpayers’ bracket to exceed the SIRS criterion.

As for the Annual Value (AV) of property criterion, it serves as a proxy for wealth and family support. The Government has similarly sought to cover more people under SIRS. The AV criterion of $21,000 covers about nine in 10 owner-occupied residential public and some private properties.

We understand that some of the SEPs who exceed the AV criterion may not themselves own these higher-end properties. Rest assured they can still appeal to be considered for SIRS. We will work with NTUC to assess the circumstances on a case-by-case basis and ensure that the scheme helps SEPs who most need it. Even if an appellant is not eligible for SIRS, we will certainly connect him or her with other relevant agencies like the Social Service Offices (SSOs) to offer other forms of assistance.

Mr Chairman, in administering schemes and programmes, such as SIRS, the Government has always partnered various like-minded organisations to better serve Singaporeans and our businesses. This is a key feature of tripartism and has served our Singaporean workers very well.

For instance, we work with the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), NTUC’s Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) and Singapore Manufacturing Federation (SMF) to administer the Work-Life Grant (WLG). Likewise, the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) is our appointed programme manager for SGUnited Traineeships, working with host companies to review and approve the scope and development plans of the proposed traineeships.

Other Government agencies, such as Enterprise Singapore (ESG), have also partnered with Trade Associations and Chambers (TACs) to administer schemes for companies. In governing these schemes, the responsible Ministries and agencies determine the policy parameters, including the eligibility criteria. The Ministries set clear boundaries within which our partners must operate, and any exceptions would require the Ministry’s approval.

Mr Chairman, over the past few years, several Members of Parliament and members of the public have raised concern that some employees could be misclassified as SEPs and, as a result, not received CPF contributions from their employers and other employee benefits, such as leave entitlement. Assoc Prof Walter Theseira also raised this question earlier in his cut.

In determining whether an individual is an employee or SEP, the Singapore Courts consider factors, such as the degree of control exerted by the company and its ability to decide on the hours of work. However, given the wide variety of work arrangements today, each case must be evaluated based on the specific circumstances. The Government applies a similar approach to the Courts when assessing the employment status of an individual.

To ensure that the employees are not misclassified as SEPs and denied their statutory employment benefits, MOM follows up on complaints — everyone of them that we received — and ensures that the employers make rectifications where needed. For example, arising from feedback from adjunct teaching associates a few years ago, MOM worked with our Autonomous Universities to ensure that the CPF contributions and leave entitlements were provided to those working as employees.

I understand that during the circuit breaker period, adjunct teaching associates have continued to receive full salaries from their Universities which are supported by the JSS payouts.

Secondly, championing Fair Employment practices. The Government has provided substantial support through the Jobs Support Scheme (JSS) to help our employers retain and pay local workers. Deputy Prime Minister Heng recapped and shared with us that the JSS amounted to $23.5 billion, protecting 1.9 million jobs for Singaporeans. Employers should act responsibly and fairly, and make sure that they are ensuring that their local workers are given wages even if they are unable to work.

I want to assure Ms Anthea Ong that the Government takes a very serious view of irresponsible, unfair or fraudulent employment practices, including false reporting of workers’ CPF payments by employers to obtain higher JSS payouts. We take a whole-of-Government approach to identify such fraudulent cases. As highlighted in the media release by IRAS on Wednesday this week, there are severe penalties for any attempt to abuse the JSS.

I want to assure Ms Ong that workers need not be afraid to come forward to report any infringement of employment laws, because the Employment Act protects them from wrongful dismissal by employers, especially those who seek to punish workers for exercising their rights.

Employers who wrongfully dismiss their workers may be ordered to pay compensation or to reinstate workers to their former jobs. Errant employers may also see a withdrawal of Government-paid employment support or suspension of their Work Pass privileges. MOM takes all feedback on employment law infringements very seriously.

During this difficult period, workers and employers have to work even more closely together than ever before and strive to maintain open channels of communication. As Mr Louis Ng pointed out, employees may need greater work flexibility to deal with the disruptions that arise due to COVID-19. Likewise, Mr Desmond Choo and Ms Sylvia Lim raised points regarding the challenges of workers, in particular, women, face and how FWAs can benefit employers, employees and the society in the long run.

FWAs help workers better prepare and better balance their commitments at home and at work, and enable women to remain in the workforce, gain work experience, earn higher wages and assume leadership positions. MOM has been working with the tripartite partners to improve workers’ access to FWAs, such as by providing support via the Work Life Grant (WLG) and recognising progressive employers through the Tripartite Standard on FWAs.

As a result of COVID-19, many more companies are working from home now and are benefiting from FWAs. We will seize the opportunity to continue this momentum and ensure that work-from-home arrangements are sustained beyond the COVID-19 period. This will not only strengthen business resilience; it will better support work-life harmony for all workers.

Thirdly, ensuring workers’ mental well-being. As more businesses gradually resume operations, workers will take some time to adjust to the new normal as well as different working arrangements. Since the start of COVID-19, there has been many changes and adjustments. We understand that workers may face additional stress, and some may have mental health challenges. I agree with Ms Anthea Ong that we must look into our workers’ mental health as we also seek to protect as many jobs as possible during this challenging period.

Ms Ong had suggested that we consider introducing additional requirements to qualify for JSS payouts. However, the intent of JSS is, as I have mentioned earlier, to help the companies retain and pay for local workers. It is to as many companies stay afloat and keep jobs for Singaporeans. So, really, the JSS is a temporary scheme designed to help companies save jobs for Singaporeans during this period of economic uncertainty. Adding too many conditions would only make it more difficult for the employers to benefit from JSS or, inadvertently, cause a delay in employers getting the urgent help they need. Jobs may be lost if the employers do not get timely help.

Instead, we have been working on other ways to encourage our employers to implement progressive practices and workplace adjustments to take care of our workers’ mental health needs in the workplace.

During the Committee of Supply (COS) in March, Ms Ong will remember that MOM announced that we will formulate a Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being to educate our employers on basic mental health knowledge and make available the resources to help them. We will work with the tripartite partners to evaluate the possibility of including an Employee Assistance Programme as well as insurance coverage for mental health as part of the upcoming Tripartite Advisory, which will be finalised in the second half of this year.

We are also working closely with the various Government agencies and the Labour Movement to provide our employers with resources that can support their workers’ mental well-being.

Mr Chairman, what I have just shared are ways in which we are supporting our workers and employers to overcome the challenges arising from COVID-19. During the circuit breaker, we have all come across many heart-warming and heartening stories of how businesses, workers and Singaporeans are rallying behind one another as one community. As we slowly reopen the economy and transit to a new normal, I am confident that the unity and the fortitude of our workers and the employers will see us through this crisis and help us emerge stronger together.

The Chairman: Clarifications. Ms Anthea Ong.

Ms Anthea Ong: Mr Chairman, I thank Senior Parliamentary Secretary Low for her response. I would like to ask if the Senior Parliamentary Secretary could answer my question. Should there be a mechanism to make companies that are unaffected by or even profiting from the crisis return their GSS payouts? That is one. Secondly, I am very heartened that the Senior Parliamentary Secretary is reiterating that employees should come forward because they are protected under the Employment Act, if they have errant employers.

How are we actually making sure that this is made known, particularly to the more vulnerable employees, that they have this right? Many of them are sharing with me that they are so afraid to come forward because, first of all, they do not know they have this right and, secondly, they are worried about employers actually making life harder for them.

The Chairman: The longer the question, the shorter the answer.

Ms Anthea Ong: I will just keep it to two then, Mr Chairman, on your cue.

The Chairman: You have 20 seconds.

Ms Low Yen Ling: Thank you. I want to thank the Member, Ms Anthea Ong, for her supplementary question. On the first one about whether there are companies profiteering from the crisis. Earlier on, I mentioned that the JSS is targeted to help companies retain and pay their local workers. In designing the JSS, MOF as well as MOM and the various Ministries sought to achieve a balance between targeted assistance and also administrative efficiency, because this is really a crisis period. You want to make sure that the help reach the intended target audience as expeditiously as possible and make sure that we save every job. So, we strike a good balance between targeted assistance and administrative efficiency in designing the JSS.

I would like to inform Ms Ong that a large percentage of our firms and local employees, as the Deputy Prime Minister has mentioned, will be severely impacted. And earlier on, when he reminded us that the JSS amounted to $23.5 billion protecting 1.9 million jobs, two-thirds of our SMEs benefit from this. It is really important to provide the support to them. So, the question the Member asked —

The Chairman: Kindly wrap up, Ms Low.

Ms Low Yen Ling: So, to identify and exclude individual employers from this scheme will certainly need another level or, in fact, a few levels of administrative operations to sift through, especially when the eventual economic impact to them remains uncertain. It may not be administratively efficient to do so. So, I just want to share the balance between providing the help in an efficient way to the target audience vis-a-vis operational complexity. Now, I also want to reassure Ms Ong —

The Chairman: Ms Low, can you just wrap up quickly?

Ms Low Yen Ling: Yes. I want to assure Ms Ong that any irresponsible or unfair, fraudulent employment practises, including a false reporting of CPF contributions and so on will be dealt with severely and we will not hesitate to take actions accordingly. And we really urge the workers to report such errant employers. The Member will be familiar with our various programmes like Work Right and so on. We do have MOM officers going out not just to big companies, but also to small ones to share with them the rights of our workers, what are their rights under the Employment Law and how they would be protected. So, they need not fear because the employment right protects them, especially those who have been wrongfully dismissed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.

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